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Shefali Tsabary Headshot

What it Takes to 'Train' a Child

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Tatyana Tomsickova Photography via Getty Images
Tatyana Tomsickova Photography via Getty Images

In 2010, a California couple were charged with both torture of one of their children and murder of the other -- crimes committed during a "discipline session," in which the couple allegedly followed recommendations in the book To Train Up a Child.

It wasn't the first death at the hands of parents who are allegedly devotees of the "discipline" taught in this book. A 4-year-old little boy had died in 2006. More recently, the book has been linked to "the deaths of multiple children," according to CNN.

The book's approach to "discipline" is to begin spankings when children are still babies, with the intention of raising children who obey without question. The method has been adopted by a large number of parents who sadly have no real understanding of the statement in the book of Proverbs, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it."

The Hebrew reads literally, not "in the way he should go," but "according to the mouth of his way." It's an idiomatic way of saying that the child will teach you how to raise him or her, in line with his or her unique personality traits and basic nature. This is the exact opposite of raising children who do what we want them to do like little robots.

It's not robots that this ancient proverb wants us to raise, but child who are true to their own particular bent -- children whose parents have learned to tune into what the child is telling them about his or her particular needs, aptitudes, and developing interests. "His way" means the unique way for that child.

The word "train" has overtones of "dedicate," in the sense of a celebration of dedication. Effective parenting celebrates who a child is, reinforcing the child's true self -- loving the child for who she or he is, just as she or he is.

Some scholars also point out that while "child" can refer to anyone from a baby to someone in their teens, it tends to refer to a youth. The teens are a time when our children need increasing freedom, accompanied by appropriate responsibility, to express their particular way of being.

Which is why, in my book Out of Control -- Why Disciplining Your Child Doesn't Work... and What Will, just released, I show that the huge problems that often occur in the teens are the result of a child not being heard, not being respected and honored for their uniqueness, during the earlier years.

The key to effective parenting is to connect with a child in the deepest way. Rather than trying to get them to conform to what we think best for them, our task is to tune into them at the heart level.

When we do so, we discover that our interpretation of their behavior is often -- perhaps most of the time -- simply mistaken.

As parents, we have a proclivity for missing the point of what a child is trying to say through their behavior. It's not "rebellion," "defiance," "stubborness," or "orneriness" and the like that we're seening, as so many of us have been told, but a cry for understanding.

The child is telling us that some vital need is being ignored -- some aspect of "their way" not being honored. Their behavior is the only means they have to communicate what we can't hear. To crush this behavior with "discipline," as so much parenting advice suggests, is 180 degrees the wrong direction.

It isn't our children who need discipline, but ourselves -- to rein in our own past programming, "the way our parents taught us," the way our culture did it when we were young, and instead tune into our child's specific temperament and needs. I show how to do this in my new book, using specific situations to illustrate how it works in everyday life.

Train up your child in his or her unique way, and when she or he is older, there'll be no need for a mid-life crisis. Instead of having no real clue who they are, they will have built their lives on a foundation that's true to their own heart.